Leaders answer sheriff’s claims, attempt to clear air
A Wednesday morning meeting played out like a State of Sampson County Address turned court proceeding as county administration delivered an exhaustive review of the budgetary process, current financial and staffing challenges, employee compensation and an outlook that will see Sampson continue to face impacts administrators say, while serious, are similar to what is being experienced by other local governments.
The meeting, which extended for more than three hours, concluded with county officials setting out to clear up a number of what they deemed “misperceptions” — while offering exhibits — about the Sheriff’s Office, its budget, the support the department has received from the county and salaries of county leaders.
County Manager Ed Causey kicked off the meeting, handing it over to Finance Officer David Clack to talk about the minutiae of the county budget, including debt service obligations, departmental revenues and fund balance, before Human Resources director Nancy Dillman addressed vacancies across county departments and recruitment challenges.
About two hours into the meeting, Assistant County Manager Susan Holder, serving as public information officer, delivered a presentation entitled “Clarifying Misinformation.” which specifically addressed information “that is disputable, clearly erroneous and merits clarification as we all seek to resolve our challenges,” she noted in the presentation.
She delved into the many statements made by Sampson County Sheriff Jimmy Thornton through print media, on his Facebook page and via emails to county leaders in recent months, in which he has repeatedly lamented the lack of support from county administration and the Board of Commissioners to adequately fund officers.
Thornton has pointed to low deputy salaries as contributing to a decline in his personnel and the amount of officers on patrol, which he said is now resulting in longer response times. The sheriff said he “ran into a bureaucratic stonewall” on his attempts to enter into a contract to house federal prisoners for a fee that could have been parlayed into more competitive pay for deputies at no cost to citizens.
He has been vociferous on the issue, updating the increasing response times in Sampson this week and continuing to rally residents to call commissioners and voice their own concerns. The sheriff said that now as few as two to four deputies are patrolling the county when there should be at least eight.
“We should not be reducing the level of service … but this ongoing problem of inadequate pay for our officers is having a negative ripple effect,” Thornton has stated. “Failure to adequately fund the Sheriff’s Office has far reaching effects in Sampson County. As deputies leave for jobs in nearby counties that pay higher salaries for the same positions, we have fewer deputies patrolling our communities than necessary. I’ve pleaded with the county manager and commissioners. They have agreed there is an issue, but have yet to solve the problem.”
The string of posts from Thornton began last month, when he rebuked what he called less than competitive wages for deputies, noting more than a dozen current vacancies in his department and imploring the public for support. A petition was started calling on county commissioners to “fully fund” the Sheriff’s Office, an online effort that has received thousands of signatures.
‘Trying to create context’
Last week, Causey said Wednesday’s meeting would be “trying to create context and make sure people have accurate information on a wide variety of subjects they may be talking about.” On Wednesday, Causey said there would be no recommendation to the board for action — and there was none.
“We want to provide the board with accurate information and allow you to digest same before providing staff with the parameters for recommending solutions if any,” said Causey. “Everyone supports law enforcement, and we will share relevant information that demonstrates the support exists and has existed for years. We acknowledge that there are several challenges that need full understanding of the board before solutions can be recommended.”
Causey said he appreciated the passion from departments.
“Likewise, it would be most helpful if everyone understood there are multiple perspectives regarding the many challenges facing our county. Department heads are focused on the needs of their departments. County Administration and the commissioners should be focused on the overall needs of the entire county as they consider the specific needs of any specific area … Clearly, the recently expressed concerns regarding the salaries of the deputies have brought our many challenges to the forefront. In solving a particular problem, our first goal is to not exacerbate the overall challenges facing the entire county.”
Dillman said the issues Sampson facing “are not a Sampson County problem,” as many others are in the same boat.
“We all have hiring challenges right now,” Dillman noted. “We’re all facing the same issues. What has become even more apparent, post-Covid, is that my peers are less willing to share information. We’re kind of closing the gates because we’re trading employees. We’re stealing, we’re robbing … we are all facing the same difficulties, whether it be Wake, Durham, Cumberland, Hoke … large and small.”
Dillman said the most difficult positions to fill, according to statewide and nationwide surveys of human resource professionals, are those in healthcare and policing. Specifically with hiring Detention workers and social workers, Dillman said the county simply “can’t find them.” Similarly, Basic Law Enforcement Training (BLET) program enrollment is declining, she said, further upping the competitiveness in recruiting and retaining employees.
As of Sept. 1, 50 of 565 full-time positions in Sampson County were vacant.
That included 15 of 150 positions at DSS; seven of 95 positions in the Sheriff’s Office; seven of 50 positions in the Detention Center; five of 44 in the Health Department; five of 52 at EMS; four of 22 at Communications; three of 12 at the Department of Aging; one of four in Administration; one of eight in Inspections/Planning; one of two at the Expo Center; and one of 12 in Transportation.
“This changes daily,” said Dillman of the numbers. “We have a revolving door.”
She said another 10 employees were set to retire by the end of the year, taking with them institutional knowledge and experience.
“I think we all know that Covid has helped expedite people looking for new opportunities. People who have options are taking them now,” said Dillman. “This is not a new problem, but it is a growing problem.”
A new crop of employees means new challenges, she said.
“It’s a new day, and we’re going to have to evolve as a government to face those new demands,” said Dillman. “Younger applicants want greater flexibility in where they work and how they work, and they are much more mobile.”
Dillman said that DSS has continued to face staffing challenges. Dillman said that DSS director Lynn Fields and her predecessor Sarah Bradshaw would regularly inform her and other county officials of the need to realign some duties and reassign employees as necessary depending on the tasks and personnel. A plan would be worked out.
“It’s constant,” said Dillman. “Evermore, it’s a moving target. Every department head organizes the resources they have to meet the needs of the department. Mr. Causey doesn’t go tell him, ‘you put this person here, and this person here and this person here … every department head is the advocate for what they need to get the job done for their department.”
In July 2021, every employee received a 5% cost of living adjustment (COLA). In October 2021, Detention officers received a 10% raise to aid in hiring challenges. In December 2021, every employee received a 2.1% bonus from American Rescue Plan Act funding. In January 2022, with the exception of Detention Center officers, employees received another 5% raise. However, in an effort to avoid a tax increase in the 2022-23 budget, COLAs were not included.
That put Sampson behind other surrounding counties who did budget them, Dillman said.
“We’re all raising salaries — so we raise our salaries, what do other counties do? What does the City of Clinton do? They raise their salaries,” said Dillman. “We’re all competing for the same skillsets, and there’s a limited number of applicants out there.”
Dillman provided salaries for chief executive officers for Sampson County.
“Our perspective is we hire for experience and demonstrated achievements. Each of these people got their job because of those things. The salaries are comparable … there’s been a lot said about the county manager’s salary,” said Dillman, who offered a sampling of county manager’s salaries across the state by county, tax base, population and experience.
Causey’s salary, at $161,868 in 2021, ranked 20th out of the 29 county manager salaries listed.
Clack said that, during the year, situations arise that will have a material impact on the following year’s budget. In fiscal year 2021-2022, there were “several such situations.” He offered examples.
In October 2021, the board agreed to increase the pay for Detention officers by 10%, which amounted to $197,000. In October 2021, the board agreed to hire six additional paramedics and purchase an additional ambulance at a cost of $688,000. In December 2021, the board agreed to give all employees except Detention officers an additional 5% cost of living adjustment, which totaled $1,254,000.
The total effect on the fiscal year 2022-2023 budget was an additional cost of $2,385,000, Clack noted.
There are some items that are fully or partially paid for with grant funds, he pointed out. The county portion is referred to as net tax support. For example, he said, the Department of Social Services budget totals $16.3 million, and the county portion after fees and grants is $6.3 million or 38% of the total. The Sheriff’s Office and Detention Center budgets total $14.2 million and the county portion after fees and grants is $10.9 million, or 77% of the total.
“Since approximately 31% of our operating budgets are comprised of salary and fringes, any significant budget reductions will include positions,” said Clack. “Services that are currently provided will change.”
In the current fiscal year, allocations to reserve accounts were cut, freeing up $900,000 to pay for salary increases and operations.
“All this money has been absorbed into our operating budget,” the finance officer remarked. “There will be no easy cuts to absorb increased costs for fiscal year 2023-2024. Any increase in estimated revenues, short of a property tax increase, will not be sufficient to pay for inflationary increases to our operating budget.”
Causey previously recommended a 5 cent tax hike for 2022-23 that would have brought the property tax rate to 87.5 cents per $100 valuation. The board ultimately voted not to hike the tax rate for residents, and it remained at 82.5 cents, still the highest of all neighboring counties.
Holder set out to clear the air on what county officials called “misperceptions” circulating about a number of topics.
“The issues we’ve been talking about today are emotional, it’s an emotional topic — and they tend to engender a great deal of passionate opinion. Nothing we are offering here today intends to discount anyone’s passionate opinions or discount their concerns,” said Holder. “But we can’t let our passions and our emotions govern how we act on these matters, because they are critical. These are important topics that warrant very serious conversation, but that conversation can’t be productive unless it’s factual.”
Holder said county officials believed it was “disingenuous to intimate” that the Board of Commissioners and County Administration have done nothing to support our law enforcement and detention officers.
“Obligated to make decisions in the best interest of all our employees, our taxpayers, and understanding the impact short term decisions can have in the long term, the board seeks to address challenges in a manner that does not result in unintended consequences,” said Holder.
She noted that from between July 2021 to now, the board has sought to address compensation challenges.
“As the timeline demonstrates, the raises for all employees — including the Sheriff’s Office and Detention Center employees — were not insignificant, totaling at least 12.1% for all employees, and 17.1% for Detention Center employees,” said Holder. “County Administration and Human Resources have implemented multiple pay grade re-classifications and salary alignments/increases in response to the Sheriff’s requests.”
She addressed a contract that Thornton proposed in December 2020 to hold federal prisoners in the Detention Center for a fee — that fee that would boost deputy salaries. The sheriff was adamant that the recommendations be met in their entirety or he would not agree to the contract. Ultimately, a revised contract was indeed signed. Thornton has said the contract was not what he presented.
Administration, she said, had concerns: “Is it safe to increase the number of prisoners housed in a Detention Center facility with personnel shortages? Are the anticipated revenues realistic?”
In an email to the board in January 2021, Causey voiced concerns about an existing revenue shortfall for housing outof-county prisoners and warning that in preparing the 2022-23 budget, such anticipated revenues would have to be based on demonstrated receipts. Any shortfall would present a built-in challenge going into the new fiscal year, he noted.
The county is projecting $336,891 less in the proposed federal contract than last year, Holder stated.
Subsequent to the budget adoption in 2021, the county manager and some of the county commissioners did indeed meet with the sheriff to consider his concerns, as evidenced in a followup email from the manager to the sheriff dated Sept. 22, 2021, Holder noted. During the preparation of the most recent 2022-23 budget, the sheriff reportedly did not request a budget meeting with the county manager and finance officer nor to present at the board’s budget work session and did not speak during the budget public hearing to voice his concerns regarding employee compensation, Holder noted in her presentation.
“We’re not dismissing the challenges that anybody has, by any means,” Causey said at the Wednesday meeting. “Our simple point in all of this is we need to get on a level playing field and look at what needs to be done and the proper context … Quite frankly, I would have to applaud the board of commissioners for the things that y’all have done in the last couple of years and the dedication you have had to getting things done. There may need to be some understanding between defunding and underfunding and funding. Defunding means that you have had a decline in expenditures … that has not occurred.”
Putting together the county budget is a responsibility Causey said he and his staff take seriously. Departments never get everything they ask for, the county manager attested, but he said that should not be taken as lack of interest or support.
“Hopefully, nobody will construe whatsoever that because we have a difference on a budget’s line item, that they do not have our full support,” Causey remarked. “That is just an erroneous conclusion.”
“I truly want to commend our staff for the excellent job they’ve done today; it’s been a lot of hard work and they’ve done an excellent job and we support them as well as we do the entire county government,” said Board Chairperson Sue Lee.
Commissioner Jerol Kivett chided the “Monday morning quarterbacks” who draw their conclusions on heresay, and don’t have all the facts nor have to make the tough decisions. He invited them to throw their hat in the ring and serve.
“I live 18 miles out of Clinton; I’d be a fool not to support law enforcement. And I think, if you ask them, I have,” said Kivett. “Everyone on this board is a Sampsonian. We have no implants up here. You go to all the other counties, you’re going to find commissioners who are from somewhere else. Everyone up here has nothing but the best for Sampson County on our mind, and we’re going to continue to do that. I applaud each department in Sampson County on what they do. I applaud the Sheriff’s Department for what they’ve done, the effort they put in, the sacrifice they make — the firsr responders, everybody.”
“We’re here to support,” Kivett implored. “The problem we have, as you’ve heard, is all the obstacles in our way financially. We’ve got to figure out how to do that. That’s our job. It’s not going to be perfect, I can promise you that, but I can tell you this: We’re going to do our dead-level best. I promise you that.”
Causey again pointed to the overall impacts that don’t just impact Sampson County, but will affect the bottom line here and elsewhere for the foreseeable future.
“Our country and Sampson County have entered perilous times because of inflation, supply chain issues, and the remnants of the pandemic,” Causey stated. “From the county’s perspective, we can add a declining population and the current challenges of agriculture to the mix. Fortunately, because of years of hard work and vigilance, our financial position is sound. Moving forward, we must assume that the stated concerns will have an effect unless we maintain our vigilance and understand all our challenges and the unintended consequences of how we address these challenges.”
To see the full presentation from county administration, visit www.sampsonnc.com and click on “Commissioner Report.” The meeting can be viewed in its entirety at the Sampson County Government YouTube channel, where it is broken up into three parts, each roughly an hour long.
Editor Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 2587.